Twelfth Night, a celebration of the coming Epiphany; a Christian feast day that marked the revelation of God's son in human form and the visiting of the Magi (the three kings), was at one time widely celebrated. Most popular during the medieval and Tudor period, the feasting was overseen by the 'King' and Lord of Misrule.
Integral to the celebrations, a yeast leavened plum cake or Twelfth cake spiced with cinnamon, clove, mace and nutmeg, dotted with candied peel and citron. Baked within, a bean and a pea, so that the person who received such a slice would be designated the king and queen of the night's feasting.
During Twelfth Night, usual order and rule would become reversed; the king and nobility would become peasants and peasants would act king. Until the stroke of midnight that is, when all reverted to the usual order of things.
In the Georgian period, those invited to Twelfth Night festivities were assigned king or queen and other guests given a character or role to play for the evening. Picked from a pack of cards, characters such as Toby Tipple; Mrs Prittle-Prattle and Sir Tun Belly Wash
were popular. Again, until the stroke of midnight, when a large yeasted plum cake, heavily iced was cut, and the spell lifted.
The earliest printed recipe for an English Twelfth Cake dates to the beginning of the 19th Century and appears in a book by John Mollard, 'The Art of Cooking'
, published in London in 1803. It also describes the thick icing, usually coloured with cochineal, topped with gilded crowns and ornamented with white moulded sugar paste, as was fashionable for society of the day.
I have been fascinated by this sort of moulded sugar paste work, mainly seen in illustration plates in facsimiles of old cookbooks for some time now. I realise that sounds quite geeky, but I really don't care, just take a look at some examples
of these intricate whimsies and centrepieces and tell me you're not a little bit intrigued. That and the making of marchpanes, gingerbread, wafers and comfits is what lead me to booking one of Ivan Day's historical food courses.
Based in the Lake District, Ivan Day is a renowned expert in British and European culinary history and, one of my food heroes. Without realising it, you've probably come across some of his work
: he has been advisor for many historical/period dramas and films; created food replicas for exhibitions and museums and with his business partner, renovated kitchens for many a National Trust property.
In Ivan's old farmhouse kitchen, flanked either side by a Victorian and Jacobean stove, we started with a brief history of sugar. Cultivation of sugar cane began in New Guinea and, by way of what is now Indonesia, made its way to India where the techniques of extraction and crystallisation were discovered as early as 350AD. Exported in dhows or caravans, sugar and subsequently the techniques to crystalise it, spread across Southeast Asia and China and also to the Middle East.
It was from Byzantium that sugar made its way to Europe; Venice becoming the main trading place. The stranglehold that the Venetian merchants and traders had on its export to the rest of Europe and its wild expense, is thought to be part of the driving force for countries such as Britain, France and Portugal looking for cheaper ways of production and control. This, coupled with the discovery of the New World and Caribbean and cultivation of sugar cane within those climes, fuelled not only sugar production and its popularity but the slave trade alongside.
By the late 16th Century, sugar was being refined in London and Liverpool and only the very poor were not using it. It came in many forms, the cone being most common. Chipped with a hammer and clipped into nibs, it had to be boiled into liquid sugar that was turned out and allowed to set. Grey in colour, this was crushed and dissolved in water before being boiled with egg whites and passed through a jelly bag. The end result was then pounded or crushed into the consistency required for each recipe.
Thankfully for our sugar paste work, we used icing sugar straight from a box. To this we added gum tragacanth a powdered resin, and small amounts of water to make a putty like modelling material that when dried, would be as fine as porcelain. Interestingly, in places such as Meissen
, the early model makers were all confectioners who had transferred their skills to porcelain. Delicate posies, tazzas and figurines now often bought as collectibles, were originally designed to decorate the table at banquets replacing sugar paste confections.
During the course, it quickly became apparent that a large part of the skill and artistry lay in the carving of the moulds used for the paste work. Carved in inverse from mainly boxwood or pear with an astounding degree of detail, these remain the legacy of the early confectioners, whose handiwork was otherwise ephemeral.
Dusting the moulds with starch, or for the more intricate ones Trex vegetable fat, we pressed in the off-white sugar paste, softened and made more pliable by kneading in further Trex. Originally spermaceti, a wax found in the head cavity of mainly Sperm whales would have been used -so Trex then. Squeezing and cutting away any excess, the motifs were pricked out of the mould and then left to dry.
Working in teams, we decorated two dummy cakes, destined for museums. One had the more traditional Regency motifs celebrating the Union, with Prince of Wales ostrich plumes, roses, shamrock and thistle. The second; cornucopias of fruit, vines and bunches of grapes, a nod to Bacchanalia where some of the Twelfth Night festivities stem.
Ensuring the sugar motifs did not dry to a hard brittle, they were painted with gelatine on the back and gently applied to the iced cake. Traditionally, isinglass, the dried swim bladder of fish would have been boiled up and clarified to use for this purpose. Gelatine however is easier to use, readily available and much cheaper in this day and age.
In the meantime, a group of us broke away to make the crowns and cushions that would top the cake. Colouring small amounts of sugar paste with modern day food-colouring gel on this occasion, we used a five piece mould to make each crown, the circular base rolled out with precision by hand. Sandwiched together and assembled using gelatine, they were left to stick and dry, before gilding.
Being part magpie, I was disproportionately excited by the prospect of gilding sugar work. This time we used a gum Arabic, an unrefined chunk pounded with a pestle and mortar, stray bark removed and milled to a fine powder. An equal quantity of boiling water was added to this and left to settle in a warm place until it formed a gel like glue. Painting the yellow sugar work with this resin, we were shown how to cut, apply and gild using sheets of 24K gold leaf.
Across the weekend, having had no experience in Regency sugar work, we created two marvellous Twelfth cakes (below). Alongside, we also learnt how to make sugar tazzas, comfits, marchpanes, gingerbread, wafers and white spun sugar work. All using period kitchen equipment that Ivan had collected over the years. I'd write about it all, but there is too much to tell.
Aside from learning these confectionary skills, we were also treated to sumptuous lunches and dinner, each showcasing old, almost forgotten recipes. It was surprising to realise how well spiced and flavourful English cooking used to be and that the impression of it being grey and drab is actually false. The effect of two successive world wars, rationing and loss of knowledge and skills made such an impact on the way the British cooked and ate, as well as its culinary image . It is, however, being reclaimed and rediscovered.
My favourite meal: a Tudor steak pie with French puddings -little balls of minced mutton, breadcrumbs, pennyroyal and spices. Followed by a 19th Century recipe for quince trifle and Mrs Agnes Marshall's melon ice cream served with coffee glazed meringues and white spun sugar.
For me this was a fantastic weekend of cooking, eating and imbibing generous amounts of culinary history. If that sounds like your cup of tea, I cannot recommend Ivan Day's Historical Food
courses enough. Now then, where do I sign up for moulded foods and ice cream? And, who's for a Twelfth Night revival?